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Classic International Films, 1934-1960

Compiled by
Robert E. Yahnke
Professor, General College,
University of Minnesota
I didn't discover "foreign films" until I began teaching film in the late 1970s. Upon viewing films like Bergman's The Virgin Spring (1960), Renoir's The Grand Illusion (1936), or De Sica's Umberto D. (1952), I was transfixed by the subtleties of character, the psychological tensions that evolved through complex relationships, the ambiguities of human behavior and interpersonal relationships. An entire course could be organized around some of the films in the list below. No wonder I incorporate some of these films in my introductory course. Unlike the production-line films made as part of the American Studio System, these international films were completed by small crews working outside corporate sponsorship. In some respects many of these international films are similar in scope and production to the independent films that came to prominence around the world in the 1980s. Perhaps that is part of their charm; they are idiosyncratic, original, and don't depend upon "star" power to make them successful. In other words, independent productions tend to reflect the artistic personality of the director moreso than films that have to be accepted by Studio executives.
Classic International Films, 1934-1960
1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much Alfred Hitchcock England
1935 The Thirty-Nine Steps Alfred Hitchcock England
1936 Grand Illusion Jean Renoir France
1936 Sabotage Alfred Hitchcock England
1938 The Lady Vanishes Alfred Hitchcock England
1939 The Rules of the Game Jean Renoir France
1946 Great Expectations David Lean England
1946 Open City Roberto Rossellini Italy
1947 Shoeshine Vittorio De Sica Italy
1949 The Third Man Carol Reed England
1949 The Bicycle Thief Vittorio De Sica Italy
1949 Stray Dog Akira Kurosawa Japan
1951 Ikiru Akira Kurosawa Japan
1951 Rashomon Akira Kurosawa Japan
1952 Forbidden Games Rene Clement France
1952 Umberto D. Vittorio De Sica Italy
1953 Tokyo Story Yasujiro Ozu Japan
1954 La Strada Federico Fellini Italy
1954 The Seven Samurai Akira Kurosawa Japan
1955 Pather Panchali Satyajit Ray India
1955 Smiles of a Summer Night Ingmar Bergman Sweden
1956 Aparijito Satyajit Ray India
1957 The Seventh Seal Ingmar Bergman Sweden
1957 Wild Strawberries Ingmar Bergman Sweden
1957 The Nights of Cabiria Federico Fellini Italy
1959 Hiroshima, Mon Amour Alain Resnais France
1959 Floating Weeds Yasijuro Ozu Japan
1959 Breathless Jean Luc Godard France
1959 The 400 Blows Francois Truffaut France
1959 The World of Apu Satyajit Ray India
1960 The Virgin Spring Ingmar Bergman Sweden
1960 Winter Light Ingmar Bergman Sweden
1960 The Bad Sleep Well Akira Kurosawa Japan
1960 Jules and Jim Francois Truffaut France
1960 La Dolce Vita Federico Fellini Italy


Many people don't know that Alfred Hitchcock directed films in England before he directed films in America. His first American film was Rebecca (1940); it starred the famous English actor Sir Laurence Olivier. Hitchcock started as a director of well-crafted and well-acted suspense films in the 1930s. Four of his early films are listed in the chart below. Each of the films feature spies and international intrigue. Perhaps the best film is The Lady Vanishes (1938), which features a complicated plot about mistaken identities and characters frustrated because no one will believe their versions of the "truth"--both trademarks of later Hitchcock films.

The French director Jean Renoir, the son of the famous Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, made two great films, Grand Illusion (1936) and The Rules of the Game (1939). Although both films seem stilted by modern standards of cinema viewing, they have the power to sneak up on a viewer who regards them with patience and attention. In the former the presence of the great French actor Jean Gabin is enough to make the viewing experience a pleasure. Gabin is a hulking figure with an expressive face, whose physical presence on the screen reminds me of the contemporary French actor Gerard Depardieu. The classic German director Eric Von Stroheim plays a major role in the film as well; his formality and military bearing are an excellent complement to Gabin's roughness and informality. An interlude between Gabin's character and a young German woman is a welcome interlude to the despair throughout most of the film; and the film's closing scene is one of the greatest in cinema as it provides a release from despair and a hope for a new life for Gabin's character. The Rules of the Game exposes the ills of class and privilege and indicts people in those ranks for their insensitivity and needless cruelty. In Renoir and Hitchcock one could not find two more different directors--one who is patient with long takes and slow-paced actions; the other who builds psychological tensions with deliberate and well-timed cuts.

Italian Neo-Realism flourished in the post World War II years. This movement depended upon filming characters in actual locations (rather than studio sets) and often focused on the lives of common men and women in the difficult years after the end of the war. Major films from this period are noted on the chart above. My favorites are two by Vittorio De Sica, The Bicycle Thief (1949) and Umberto D. (1952). The first is an extraordinarily moving document of the desperation faced by a family whose survival after the war depends upon the father's having a bicycle in order to keep his job. The stolen bicycle leads the father and his small son on an anguished journey. De Sica's nonprofessional actors are often wooden and one-dimensional; yet the way the camera captures the father's chiseled features infuses the action with a tenderness and sincerity that is compelling. De Sica's use of long tracking shots of row after row of bicycles or bicycle parts adds to the reality of the film experience. De Sica's style suggests that we are present on the streets with the father and the son and are witness to the futility of their search for the stolen bicycle.

The other Italian director in the chart above is Federico Fellini, who completed three masterpieces from 1954 to 1960. The first was La Strada (1954), a poignant tale about the relationship between a one-man traveling circus strongman (played by Anthony Quinn), and an innocent waif (played by Fellini's wife, Giuletta Masina). The uncouth strongman resists the intimacy and security of this interpersonal relationship, and Fellini is able to exact an extraordinary tenderness from their interaction. The Nights of Cabiria (1957) tells the story of a desperate prostitute (again played by Masina), and La Dolce Vita (1960) exposes the brutal and insensitive side of the "good life" lived by spoiled and self-centered men and women who spend their days and nights drinking and carousing wildly. Of the three my favorite is Cabiria, because Masina's character has such spark and tenacity and integrity of character as the lowly prostitute. The combination of sprituality, moral degradation, and a woman's continual search for fulfillment are interwoven against the context of richly-detailed and memorable scenes.

The post-World War II years in France led to another breakthrough in film history, the New Wave, which refers to a series of French films completed between 1958 and 1960. This informal movement was stimulated by the critical writing of Andre Bazin, cofounder of the film periodical Cahiers de Cinema (1951). In his writing Bazin promoted the ideals of the auteur theory; that is, the director is the "author" of the film. Many forces contributed to the development of the New Wave--in some respects it was time for new faces and fresh ideas to be realized. Several young French directors stepped forward, including Louis Malle, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jean Luc Godard. Francois Truffaut's early films were emblematic of the New Wave. His The 400 Blows (1959) emphasized exterior locales, hand-held camera shots, tracking shots, and long takes, and the film was dedicated to Bazin. In this heavily autobiographical film Truffaut exposes the rawness and frustrations of childhood life. The main character lives on the edge of naiveté and cynicism; he is trapped by family, by school, by society as a whole. His symbolic cage becomes a jail cell by the end of the film. The film's closing scene, with the boy escaping the reformatory and running toward the sea, is one of the most memorable in all of cinema. The closing shot--an unexpected freeze frame--was an original idea in 1959 (although by today's standards it appears dated and even mundane). I regard Ingmar Bergman as one of the great directors in cinema history. Five of his early films are listed on the chart above. Each is a masterpiece. I have taught The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960) several times, and each time I learn more about Bergman's ideas and cinematic vision. The powerful presence of Max Von Sydow in each film also adds to their quality. Viewers can't forget Von Sydow's tortured expressions as the knight who has lost faith in The Seventh Seal and the desperate father, who inflicts a perfect revenge on his daughter's killers, in The Virgin Spring . Bergman's autobiography, The Magic Lantern, is well worth reading. He continued to direct films into the 1970s, and in late life has turned to writing screenplays based upon autobiographical materials. The first one, Best Intentions, was made into an excellent film by Bille August, a Danish director, in 1992. The film tells the story of how Bergman's parents met and married, and it ends just before Ingmar was born. The second film tells the story of Ingmar's childhood relationship with his older brother. This screenplay was also filmed. Two other directors deserve special recognition. One of first international films I viewed was Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1951). I probably saw it for the first time in 1977. I was astonished with Kurosawa's vision. His story of a rape and murder of a woman is told from the point of view of four different characters (one of whom is the woman's ghost). I was familiar with this approach in literature (Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is an obvious analogue); but in film the experience provided an innovative approach. I was overwhelmed with the simplicity of the camera style. Low camera angles on seated characters placed me in the position of a character seated opposite the one on the screen. I was brought into the world of the film through that technique. The characters revealed themselves through the action. I felt a similar response to Ikiru (1951), which focuses on the personal development of a humble and unassuming civil servant who suddenly finds a reason for living when he is diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer. The humanity of this character, and the meaning of his life, is revealed through his interactions with people he willingly serves. The title translates appropriately as "To Live." Kurosawa's style evolved beyond the 1960s. Other titles directed by him are listed in later pages of this history. The last director I discovered from this list is the Bengali director Satyajit Ray. In 1996 a retrospective of his films was shown in art theaters across the country. For many it was an introduction to a director who can hold his own with a Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa, or De Sica. I have special affection for three films by Ray. I saw the films on scratchy video copies rented from a video store near campus in 1991. Ray's career as a director was inspired by a viewing of Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief. That inspiration led to a remarkable trilogy of films, Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and The World of Apu (1959). The three films tell the story of a one person in three stages of life: as a child, an adolescent, and a young man. The stories are straightforward, told in realistic style, and restate basic human truths: birth, death, love, loss, faith, despair, loneliness, regeneration. In the first a son is born; a daughter dies. The family's home is destroyed by a storm. They leave for the city. In the second the father dies, the mother and son return to live in the country, and the boy grows up to be a good student. But he ignores his Mother and is embarrassed by her. Eventually he is devastated emotionally when he fails to return home from school in time before she dies. In the third a young man marries, his wife bears a child, and then she dies. In despair he becomes dissolute; her family takes his son away from him. At the end of the film he is reunited with his son in one of the greatest closing scenes in all of cinema. Viewers who are patient with Ray's slow-paced cinematic style will be rewarded. He is the master of the metaphorical cut. In one film the death of a parent is accompanied by the sudden flight of birds. Students can learn much about the power of editing by careful attention to Ray's style. An excellent resource for studying many of these films, and gaining insights on the influences of international cinema on American films, is the book Foreign Affairs: The National Society of Film Critics' Video Guide to Foreign Films, edited by Kathy Schulz Huffhines, San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991 (paperback). The text refers to three waves of films. The French New Wave is treated as a second wave (precursors to that movement are treated in the First Wave section). In the section The Next Wave, films from Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and China are noted. Several sections devoted to recommended films from a variety of countries follows. The book should be required reading for all cinemaphiles.

For the next chapter in this Cinema History
See Chapter 4
The 1950's--Focus on American Films

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